‘The Bunker’ houses Warren’s history

  • Published
  • By R.J. Oriez
  • 90th Missile Wing Public Affairs
A portrait of a woman is sketched on the cement wall over the inner doorway of Building 1470 on F. E. Warren Air Force Base. Who the young lady is, if she ever actually existed, is lost to the ages. Most likely the artwork was created in the first half of the 1920s. The artist was probably a bored soldier whose first initial was "L." The years have faded his last name.

The hallway leading from the outer door to the inner one is covered with graffiti. John Aschemann of Franklin, Neb. signed his name on June 29, 1919. Somebody with Troop G, 1st Calvary, added their handiwork. There is a World War I doughboy, a horse, birds, a drawing of the actor Lon Chaney, an American flag and a bird that could be meant to depict a bald eagle.

Graffiti on government property is normally frowned upon, and can lead to disciplinary action for the artist. It fits right in here, though, for this is the archeology/historical archive for the base.

The cement, underground curation facility, which is generally referred to as "the bunker," started life around the turn of the last century as a place to store potatoes.

"You notice our proximity to the railroad," said Travis Beckwith, 90th Civil Engineer Squadron cultural resources manager. "We feel it when it drives by."

Two nondescript cement boxes still stand in the hillside next to the train tracks. They are the tops of the chutes used to move produce from the trains down into the cellar.

In the 1980s, F. E. Warren faced a storage problem and, this time, it was not potatoes.

The base holds the distinction of being the oldest installation in the U.S. Air Force. With that fact comes thousands of historical documents and artifacts. The problem facing the base was how to organize them and safeguard them from the natural decay of aging.

"It was determined that all the original plans and building blueprints were not being maintained and were in attics--shoved here, shoved there," Paula Taylor, F. E. Warren ICBM and Heritage Museum curator said. "They had no idea of what they had, where it even was, for all the historic structures. So they proposed an archive in which to place all of that material in one area."

The base received a grant of legacy money from Congress to create an archive and curation facility. Buried in a hillside near the railroad tracks, the old potato cellar seemed to fit the bill.

Ironically, the first artifacts preserved in the new facility were on the walls of the structure itself.

The sides of the tunnel into the bunker had accumulated years of paint.

"If it doesn't move, the Army paints it." Taylor said. "It was painted over with I don't know how many layers."

As the paint was removed, the graffiti dating back almost a hundred years was revealed.

"It was quite a shock." Taylor said.

Inside, the bunker was remodeled to an exacting degree.

"The facility is built to meet the needs of a basic archive or curation facility," Taylor said.

Climate control is a top priority.

"We have a number of artifacts in here, we have historic documents, historic drawings. Each one of those has their own particular requirements for temperature and humidity." Beckwith said.

"Since we're underground, the temperature is maintained at a pretty consistent 65 degrees," Beckwith said. "It also has the benefit that this is a pretty dry climate, so it keeps the humidity low."

Beckwith does not depend on Wyoming's constantly changing weather to maintain standards. There are temperature/humidity monitors in every room. Central heat and dehumidifiers help keep everything within standards.

The bunker has other benefits.

"You're not supposed to have a lot of [ultraviolet light]," Taylor said. "This facility has no UV. There are no widows."

According to Taylor, the Warren curation facility marked another first for the Air Force.

"When it was put together in the early 1990s, it was the only one," she said. "They were just starting to set up the historic preservation and cultural resources in any base. That was a new thought process."

It is still rare.

"The DOD has very few curation facilities in its inventory." Beckwith said. "Most bases actually store a lot of this stuff off-site. Fortunately, we don't have to pay those storage costs."

The site is one of only three such facilities in Wyoming, and there is no lack of artifacts to store.

The history of the site where F. E. Warren sits provides a wide variety of items of historical significance. The bunker holds arrowheads, bits for horse and mule bridles, an old revolver and hand grenade fragments.

"And we also got stuff from Peacekeeper," Beckwith adds.

"I think, we have had close to 200 archeological digs," Taylor said. "So, we needed a place to house what was found under basic rules for archeological items."

"We operate under a host of federal laws," Beckwith said. "One of them is the Archeological Resources Protection Act which governs what we can and can't do when we take things out of the ground. So, everything we take out of the ground that is historic archeology, we have to keep. By law, we can't get rid of it, we can't sell it and we can't throw it away. So we curate everything here."

Each artifact has a paper trail.

"Every single one has been curated to federal standards," Beckwith said. "Everything is bagged. Everything is tagged. It's marked. We have a report that relates to every single one of these which tells us what, exactly, we found."

Archeological artifacts, old plans, maps and blueprints are the responsibility of Beckwith and the 90th CES. The F. E. Warren museum also uses the bunker for storage.

Taylor shows a visitor shelves with hard hats, uniforms, scales and a name plate from the desk of Col. Harold Stack, 90th Strategic Missile Wing commander from 1969 to 1972.

Whether an artifact is considered archeology or history depends on where it was found.

"Anything found below ground is archeology," Taylor explained. "Anything above ground is mine."

According to Beckwith, the facility's document vault holds more than 5000 old maps, plans and photographs. Beckwith gestures toward a large file sitting on a table. It happens to hold the blue prints of Quarters 117, which is currently the 90th Missile Wing commander's house.

"We have in here all these file folders with the original drawings of houses," Beckwith said. "This drawing was done in 1908."

Beckwith explained that the historic brick houses on base were built using what the Army called quartermaster plans.

"You would contact the quartermaster's office and say 'I need to build a house for a commanding officer,'" Beckwith explained. "They would say 'Ok, here you go' and, send the plans off."

"If you go to different bases, particularly Army bases in the West--if you go to Fort Leavenworth or Fort Riley, if you go to Fort Sam Houston," Beckwith said, "you will see buildings that look exactly like ours. Sometimes the materials will be a little bit different. They used local materials, but the design and the interiors will be virtually the same."

According to Beckwith, the Warren curation facility continues to lead the way.

"We digitized this entire collection," he said. "So, we are ahead of the curve. Most Air Force bases don't have their archive drawings digitized."

Digitization has been particularly helpful with the old maps.

"Using geo-referencing we can actually, with this map overlaid on the current one, we can see where buildings use to be," Beckwith said. "If we're trying to do a construction project, we can know if there may be an old building foundation there, and we can account for that in our design."

Taylor says that it is still rare for a base to have a certified curation facility.

"It is very unusual," Taylor said. "To the point that other agencies in the federal government have sent their items to us and we store them for them."

When it comes to military structures, the curation facility is about as rare as the graffiti on its walls.